Betting Blind: The Weird Thrill Of The Partially Informed NCAA Bracket : Monkey See We take a look at the phenomenon of the NCAA bracket, including the principles that go beyond truly guessing about winners and losers.
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Betting Blind: The Weird Thrill Of The Partially Informed NCAA Bracket

Mason Plumlee of Duke shoots against UNC in the ACC tournament. The teams could face off again in the NCAA tournament, which starts in earnest today. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images hide caption

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Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Mason Plumlee of Duke shoots against UNC in the ACC tournament. The teams could face off again in the NCAA tournament, which starts in earnest today.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

If you've watched the NCAA basketball tournament for many years, it's easy to forget that other people often have no idea what you're talking about when you discuss your "bracket." So let's cover that first.

A bracket, for those who spend these weeks of every year focused on something ridiculous and unimportant like work or family or reading (whatever), looks like this. Before the tournament starts, you fill it in with the teams you think are going to win all the games, right up to the championship. A filled-out bracket looks like this. That one is President Obama's, and it includes both the men's and women's tournaments. This one is mine.

Brackets are often filled out online now, which makes some of us miss the days when they would be printed out or photocopied from newspapers, and we could angrily cross out our picks in the games we got wrong using eight or nine strokes of Sharpie ink on top of each other, while triumphantly circling the ones we got right in red ink.

But the thing that makes brackets particularly curious is that unless you are the most die-hard of die-hard fans, they force you to predict games about which, if you're honest, you really don't have a lot to go on. You can be a pretty big basketball fan and still find yourself without an especially firm grip on who's going to win a game between Butler and Old Dominion. In the tournament proper, you're picking 63 games. If you actually believe you are equipped to accurately opine about 63 basketball games — many between teams who never play each other normally — you are playing point guard for Hubris State University.

Thus, you have the Philosophy Of The NCAA Bracket, which is — no lie — casually referred to as "bracketology." Well, let me clarify that: For some people, Bracketology is a highly scientific study of who will actually win basketball games. (It's partly that way for everyone, don't get me wrong.) But for others, bracketology also includes a loose collection of principles by which they fill out their brackets, and it encompasses some pretty fuzzy ideas. Everyone's notions are different; here are some of mine.

It is wrong to pick only higher seeds. The tournament is divided into four regions and seeded, meaning the teams are ranked in each region from #1 to #16. The seeding is used to match up the teams: the #1 plays the #16, the #2 plays the #15, and so on. (NCAA Men's Division I tournament trivia: No #1 seed has ever lost to a #16 seed, so ... don't hold your breath, but if it ever happens, it will be enormous news.) You can, if you choose, fill out your bracket simply by choosing the higher seeded team in every game (though some betting pools require you to pick at least one upset). In other words, you're just hugging the odds, betting every game will go as the NCAA believes it statistically should.

This is wrong. This is weak. Worse, it's unimaginative. It's being the guy who gets three wishes and wishes for a hundred more wishes. If you aren't willing to crawl out on a limb and take a stab at a couple of upsets, don't bother playing. Just go back to flipping coins one thousand times and recording how many times they come up heads; you'll find it very reassuring that probability still works.

You have to follow your heart, at least a little. I'm not saying that if you root for Bucknell (the #14 seed in the West), you have to predict that they're going to upset UConn on the way to a championship. (The lowest seed to ever win the tournament was Villanova, seeded eighth in its region in 1985.) But stretch a little bit in favor of your team, if you have one. It's the right thing to do. In fact, the only NCAA pool I have ever won was in 1991, when I picked Duke to win the championship even though UNLV was undefeated in the regular season and had cleaned our clocks the year before. (Yes, Duke is my team. Don't start, haters; I've heard it all.) It's your right — nay, it's your job — to believe in your team more than it deserves. Who's going to believe in your team if not you? This assumes, of course, that you are not betting your house on your bracket and can afford to console yourself with your virtue and sense of team loyalty when you lose. This will be hard to do if you are wearing a barrel.

Other teams it's good to favor: local teams, teams in the same conference as your team, archrivals you hope to encounter in the tournament, etc.

Use your picks to create win-win situations. Watching the tournament, you will probably encounter a lot of teams — and for the first time this year, all 63 of the games in the tournament proper that starts today will be televised in full on national broadcast or cable channels — that you don't know a lot about. You will learn that some scrawny point guard is also the president of the chess club, or that somebody's grandmother is celebrating her 80th birthday, or that the entire cheerleading squad is just getting over a bout of food poisoning.

You will fall in love with Cinderella teams without a statistical chance in the world, and they will come tantalizingly close to winning and then will not win. Your bracket — where you will not have picked most of those Cinderella teams to win — will console you. "Well, at least if the adorable University of Midwestern Pluck doesn't pull off the victory against Giant Tall Guys State, it will help my picks."

So with those things in mind, go forward and enjoy a few weeks of good basketball. It really is the best sporting event of the year.